Doing the right thing is not a guarantee that consumers will buy your company’s products.


Today’s consumers want to make better purchase decisions, and to do this they want to be better informed. They want to know “what’s inside” before they buy. And what they want to know extends well beyond product and packaging characteristics. Consumers today increasingly view sustainability and corporate responsibility — from organic ingredients to animal welfare to company treatment of employees and energy conservation — as aspects of quality, not just a “feel-good” factor.

As we approach 2020, we find that we’ve entered a new era in terms of social focus on all topics intersecting with sustainability. There is a growing sense of urgency for measurable progress in the realm of sustainability. This concern is now mainstream and increasingly front of mind for both consumers and companies. The prevailing mood and mindset that individuals, governments and corporate actors must move beyond business as usual is shaping consumer discourse, prompting new behaviors and continually surfacing underlying tensions with consumption patterns that, for many, define the American way of life.

It seems everywhere we look today there is a sustainability-related story making the news. For the past three decades, the average consumer has been contemplating the maze of headlines, claims, jargons, certifications and corporate and public-interest platforms that make up the complex world of sustainability.

With almost 9 in 10 consumers (87%) inclined in some way toward elements of a sustainable lifestyle, it’s a big understatement to say that consumer-driven trends linking to sustainable products, beliefs and actions have become firmly entrenched in contemporary consumer culture — and consciousness.

Socially conscious terms like “ethical consumption,” “sustainability,” environmentalism,” “sustainable design/products/lifestyles,” “alternative energy/fuels,” “corporate social responsibility,” “locally produced,” “organic and natural” and “fair trade” are now so regularly used that they have worked their way into the everyday lexicon of the media, corporations and consumers.

The Hartman Group has been exploring consumer perceptions of and behaviors around sustainability for 30 years. We began in the late 1980s assessing the consumer potential for products like organic and natural fibers and apparel. In the 1990s, we delved into the world of food and the environment. Since then, we have continued to delineate many of the complex fault lines of sustainability with organic and natural and health and wellness lifestyles.

Sustainability in an Era of Risk and Uncertainty

If we take the burgeoning organic market in the U.S. (with sales now well over $50 billion a year) less as a barometer of a consumer resonance with products that are earth sustainable but more as a testament to the health and wellness lifestyle drivers that influence the majority of the organic buyers today, we can use such an indicator toward the general mindset of both a responsible consumer and a responsible citizen (think: buying local, concerns for labor issues, global warming, food safety, concern for plastics in packaging, animal welfare and experiments in plant-based and vegetarian eating, to name a few).

Aside from sustainability as a red-hot media topic, the word serves as an umbrella term used to describe the current cultural movement toward concerns over climate change, increased interest in buying local, simpler ways of living, hybrid and electric cars, and other trends.

Among consumers, the underlying assumption behind these trends is that, if society continues on its current path, systems will break down, resources will become scarce and public health will be at risk.

From a marketing perspective, many of the concepts found within sustainability resonate powerfully with certain segments of the consumer market. To understand, for example, a company’s values, consumers from the core to the periphery within the world of sustainability scrutinize packaging for the attributes they prioritize. Millennials show a preference for reusable and nonexistent packaging, and women are more likely than men to scrutinize packaging materials.

Sustainability Podcat

While packaging is a key physical medium for communicating sustainable narratives, messaging focusing on transparency, openness and honesty is becoming the currency of trust for consumers who care about sustainability. They want to see corporate responsibility efforts that indicate an authentic commitment to ethical action — especially on-pack.

Certification and seals infographic

Third-party certifications are also key for engaged sustainability consumers, who look primarily for seals showing organic, fair-trade and non-GMO, and those indicating animal welfare. These certifications enhance consumers’ perceptions of a company’s transparency, as does independent verification by the news media or within key social media circles.

Among highly engaged consumers, there is a desire for an all-encompassing sustainability certification. Many of the most engaged consumers feel that the environmental piece is lacking in common certifications. These consumers also look for detailed support for claims within the brand narrative. Enough information must be on-pack for engaged consumers to consider a product, but they expect more to be easily available on company websites.

What’s Ahead?

Consumers are becoming more purposeful in their consumption. Though the gap between aspiration and action varies with consumers’ level of engagement with sustainability, we see this “conscious consumerism” only gaining power and momentum in the future.

• Consumers continue to believe that individuals bear the most responsibility not only for themselves but also for other people and the planet. Today’s consumers, particularly Millennials, therefore see shopping their values as a key way they impact change.

• The brands, retailers and restaurants that embrace this new consumerism will be best positioned to stay relevant and grow their business. Transparent, authentic and relevant business practices and communications can become powerful levers to build the necessary trust with consumers.

For the most in-depth insights, information and implications:


Sustainability 2019 will provide a thorough understanding of what consumers are looking for now, what issues are on the horizon and how the sustainability mindset and marketplace have changed over the years. Amid ever-increasing consumer expectations for transparency and ethical behavior, Sustainability 2019 will offer CPG companies, retailers and restaurants key learnings on consumer needs and resulting opportunities.